|Men of the 16th Infantry Regiment seek shelter from German machine-gun fire in shallow water|
behind "Czech hedgehog" beach obstacles, Easy Red sector, Omaha Beach.
© Robert Capa/Magnum Photos.
UNLIKE what happens to other great battles, the passing of the years and the retelling of the story have softened the horror of Omaha Beach on D Day.This fluke of history is doubly ironic since no other decisive battle has ever been so thoroughly reported for the official record. While the troops were still fighting in Normandy, what had happened to each unit in the landing had become known through the eyewitness testimony of all survivors. It was this research by the field historians which first determined where each company had hit the beach and by what route it had moved inland. Owing to the fact that every unit save one had been mislanded, it took this work to show the troops where they had fought.
How they fought and what they suffered were also determined in detail during the field research. As published today, the map data showing where the troops came ashore check exactly with the work done in the field; but the accompanying narrative describing their ordeal is a sanitized version of the original field notes.
The official accounts which came later took their cue from this secondary source instead of searching the original documents. Even such an otherwise splendid and popular book on the great adventure as Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Daymisses the essence of the Omaha story.
In everything that has been written about Omaha until now, there is less blood and iron than in the original field notes covering any battalion landing in the first wave. Doubt it? Then let's follow along with Able and Baker companies, 116th Infantry, 29th Division. Their story is lifted from my fading Normandy notebook, which covers the landing of every Omaha company.
ABLE Company riding the tide in seven Higgins boats is still five thousand yards from the beach when first taken under artillery fire. The shells fall short. At one thousand yards, Boat No. 5 is hit dead on and foundered. Six men drown before help arrives. Second Lieutenant Edward Gearing and twenty others paddle around until picked up by naval craft, thereby missing the fight at the shore line. It's their lucky day. The other six boats ride unscathed to within one hundred yards of the shore, where a shell into Boat No. 3 kills two men. Another dozen drown, taking to the water as the boat sinks. That leaves five boats.
His men are at the sides of the boat, straining for a view of the target. They stare but say nothing. At exactly 6:36 A.M. ramps are dropped along the boat line and the men jump off in water anywhere from waist deep to higher than a man's head. This is the signal awaited by the Germans atop the bluff. Already pounded by mortars, the floundering line is instantly swept by crossing machine-gun fires from both ends of the beach.
Able Company has planned to wade ashore in three files from each boat, center file going first, then flank files peeling off to right and left. The first men out try to do it but are ripped apart before they can make five yards. Even the lightly wounded die by drowning, doomed by the waterlogging of their overloaded packs. From Boat No. 1, all hands jump off in water over their heads. Most of them are carried down. Ten or so survivors get around the boat and clutch at its sides in an attempt to stay afloat. The same thing happens to the section in Boat No. 4. Half of its people are lost to the fire or tide before anyone gets ashore. All order has vanished from Able Company before it has fired a shot.
Already the sea runs red. Even among some of the lightly wounded who jumped into shallow water the hits prove fatal. Knocked down by a bullet in the arm or weakened by fear and shock, they are unable to rise again and are drowned by the onrushing tide. Other wounded men drag themselves ashore and, on finding the sands, lie quiet from total exhaustion, only to be overtaken and killed by the water. A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find that they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upward, so that their nostrils are out of water, they creep toward the land at the same rate as the tide. That is how most of the survivors make it. The less rugged or less clever seek the cover of enemy obstacles moored along the upper half of the beach and are knocked off by machine-gun fire.
Captain Taylor N. Fellers and Lieutenant Benjamin R. Kearfoot never make it. They had loaded with a section of thirty men in Boat No. 6 (Landing Craft, Assault, No. 1015). But exactly what happened to this boat and its human cargo was never to be known. No one saw the craft go down. How each man aboard it met death remains unreported. Half of the drowned bodies were later found along the beach. It is supposed that the others were claimed by the sea.
Along the beach, only one Able Company officer still lives -- Lieutenant Elijah Nance, who is hit in the heel as he quits the boat and hit in the belly by a second bullet as he makes the sand. By the end of ten minutes, every sergeant is either dead or wounded. To the eyes of such men as Private Howard I. Grosser and Private First Class Gilbert G. Murdock, this clean sweep suggests that the Germans on the high ground have spotted all leaders and concentrated fire their way. Among the men who are still moving in with the tide, rifles, packs, and helmets have already been cast away in the interests of survival.
To the right of where Tidrick's boat is drifting with the tide, its coxswain lying dead next to the shell-shattered wheel, the seventh craft, carrying a medical section with one officer and sixteen men, noses toward the beach. The ramp drops. In that instant, two machine guns concentrate their fire on the opening. Not a man is given time to jump. All aboard are cut down where they stand.
Above all others stands out the first-aid man, Thomas Breedin. Reaching the sands, he strips off pack, blouse, helmet, and boots. For a moment he stands there so that others on the strand will see him and get the same idea. Then he crawls into the water to pull in wounded men about to be overlapped by the tide. The deeper water is still spotted with tide walkers advancing at the same pace as the rising water. But now, owing to Breedin's example, the strongest among them become more conspicuous targets. Coming along, they pick up wounded comrades and float them to the shore raftwise. Machine-gun fire still rakes the water. Burst after burst spoils the rescue act, shooting the floating man from the hands of the walker or killing both together. But Breedin for this hour leads a charmed life and stays with his work indomitably.
By the end of one half hour, approximately two thirds of the company is forever gone. There is no precise casualty figure for that moment. There is for the Normandy landing as a whole no accurate figure for the first hour or first day. The circumstances precluded it. Whether more Able Company riflemen died from water than from fire is known only to heaven. All earthly evidence so indicates, but cannot prove it.
By the end of one hour, the survivors from the main body have crawled across the sand to the foot of the bluff, where there is a narrow sanctuary of defiladed space. There they lie all day, clean spent, unarmed, too shocked to feel hunger, incapable even of talking to one another. No one happens by to succor them, ask what has happened, provide water, or offer unwanted pity. D Day at Omaha afforded no time or space for such missions. Every landing company was overloaded by its own assault problems.
In the command boat, Captain Ettore V. Zappacosta pulls a Colt .45 and says: "By God, you'll take this boat straight in." His display of courage wins obedience, but it's still a fool's order. Such of Baker's boats as try to go straight in suffer Able's fate without helping the other company whatever. Thrice during the approach mortar shells break right next to Zappacosta's boat but by an irony leave it unscathed, thereby sparing the riders a few more moments of life. At seventy-five yards from the sand Zappacosta yells: "Drop the ramp !" The end goes down, and a storm of bullet fire comes in.
Private First Class Robert L. Sales, who is lugging Zappacosta's radio (an SCR 300), is the fourth man to leave the boat, having waited long enough to see the others die. His boot heel catches on the edge of the ramp and he falls sprawling into the tide, losing the radio but saving his life. Every man who tries to follow him is either killed or wounded before reaching dry land. Sales alone gets to the beach unhit. To travel those few yards takes him two hours. First he crouches in the water, and waddling forward on his haunches just a few paces, collides with a floating log -- driftwood. In that moment, a mortar shell explodes just above his head, knocking him groggy. He hugs the log to keep from going down, and somehow the effort seems to clear his head a little. Next thing he knows, one of Able Company's tide walkers hoists him aboard the log and, using his sheath knife, cuts away Sales's pack, boots, and assault jacket.
Feeling stronger, Sales returns to the water, and from behind the log, using it as cover, pushes toward the sand. Private Mack L. Smith of Baker Company, hit three times through the face, joins him there. An Able Company rifleman named Kemper, hit thrice in the right leg, also comes alongside. Together they follow the log until at last they roll it to the farthest reach of high tide. Then they flatten themselves behind it, staying there for hours after the flow has turned to ebb. The dead of both companies wash up to where they lie, and then wash back out to sea again. As a body drifts in close to them, Sales and companions, disregarding the fire, crawl from behind the log to take a look. If any one of them recognizes the face of a comrade, they join in dragging the body up onto the dry sand beyond the water's reach. The unfamiliar dead are left to the sea. So long as the tide is full, they stay with this unique task. Later, an unidentified first-aid man who comes wiggling along the beach dresses the wounds of Smith. Sales, as he finds strength, bandages Kemper. The three remain behind the log until night falls. There is nothing else to be reported of any member of Zappacosta's boat team.
FRIGHTENED coxswains in the other four craft take one quick look, instinctively draw back, and then veer right and left away from the Able Company shambles. So doing, they dodge their duty while giving a break to their passengers. Such is the shock to the boat team leaders, and such their feeling of relief at the turning movement, that not one utters a protest. Lieutenant Leo A. Pingenot's coxswain swings the boat far rightward toward Pointe du Hoc; then, spying a small and deceptively peaceful-looking cove, heads directly for the land. Fifty yards out, Pingenot yells: "Drop the ramp!" The coxswain freezes on the rope, refusing to lower. Staff Sergeant Odell L. Padgett jumps him, throttles him, and bears him to the floor. Padgett's men lower the rope and jump for the water. In two minutes, they are all in up to their necks and struggling to avoid drowning. That quickly, Pingenot is already far out ahead of them. Padgett comes even with him, and together they cross onto dry land. The beach of the cove is heavily strewn with giant boulders. Bullets seem to be pinging off every rock.
Pingenot and Padgett dive behind the same rock. Then they glance back, but to their horror see not one person. Quite suddenly smoke has half blanked out the scene beyond the water's edge. Pingenot moans: "My God, the whole boat team is dead." Padgett sings out: "Hey, are you hit?" Back come many voices from beyond the smoke. "What's the rush?" "Take it easy!" "We'll get there." "Where's the fire?" "Who wants to know?" The men are still moving along, using the water as cover. Padgett's yell is their first information that anyone else has moved up front. They all make it to the shore, and they are twenty-eight strong at first. Pingenot and Padgett manage to stay ahead of them, coaxing and encouraging. Padgett keeps yelling: "Come on, goddam it, things are better up here!" But still they lose two men killed and three wounded in crossing the beach.
The other Baker Company boat, which turns to the right, has far less luck. Staff Sergeant Robert M. Campbell, who leads the section, is the first man to jump out when the ramp goes down. He drops in drowning water, and his load of two bangalore torpedoes takes him straight to the bottom. So he jettisons the bangalores and then, surfacing, cuts away all equipment for good measure. Machine-gun fire brackets him, and he submerges again briefly. Never a strong swimmer, he heads back out to sea. For two hours he paddles around, two hundred or so yards from the shore. Though he hears and sees nothing of the battle, he somehow gets the impression that the invasion has failed and that all other Americans are dead, wounded, or have been taken prisoner. Strength fast going, in despair he moves ashore rather than drown. Beyond the smoke he quickly finds the fire. So he grabs a helmet from a dead man's head, crawls on hands and knees to the sea wall, and there finds five of his men, two of them unwounded.
Like Campbell, Private First Class Jan J. Budziszewski is carried to the bottom by his load of two bangalores. He hugs them half a minute before realizing that he will either let loose or drown. Next, he shucks off his helmet and pack and drops his rifle. Then he surfaces. After swimming two hundred yards, he sees that he is moving in exactly the wrong direction. So he turns about and heads for the beach, where he crawls ashore "under a rain of bullets." In his path lies a dead Ranger. Budziszewski takes the dead man's helmet, rifle, and canteen and crawls on to the sea wall. The only survivor from Campbell's boat section to get off the beach, he spends his day walking to and fro along the foot of the bluff, looking for a friendly face. But he meets only strangers, and none shows any interest in him.
The seven are still there. Williams hands his map and compass to Staff Sergeant Frank M. Price, saying: "It's your job now. But go the other way -- toward Vierville." Price starts to look at Williams' wounds, but Williams shakes him off, saying: "No, get moving." He then settles himself in a hole in the embankment, stays there all day, and at last gets medical attention just before midnight.
On leaving Williams, Price's first act is to hand map and compass (the symbols of leadership) to Technical Sergeant William Pearce, whose seniority the lieutenant has overlooked. They cross the draw, one man at a time, and some distance beyond come to a ravine; on the far side, they bump their first hedgerow, and as they look for an entrance, fire comes against them. Behind a second hedgerow, not more than thirty yards away, are seven Germans, five rides and two burp guns. On exactly even terms, these two forces engage for the better part of an hour, apparently with no one's getting hit. Then Pearce settles the fight by crawling along a drainage ditch to the enemy flank. He kills the seven Germans with a Browning Automatic Rifle.
Taylor is a luminous figure in the story of D Day, one of the forty-seven immortals of Omaha who, by their dauntless initiative at widely separated points along the beach, saved the landing from total stagnation and disaster. Courage and luck are his in extraordinary measure.
When Baker Company's assault wave breaks up just short of the surf where Able Company is in ordeal, Taylor's coxswain swings his boat sharp left, then heads toward the shore about halfway between Zappacosta's boat and Williams'. Until a few seconds after the ramp drops, this bit of beach next to the village called Hamel-au-Prêtre is blessedly clear of fire. No mortar shells crown the start. Taylor leads his section crawling across the beach and over the sea wall, losing four men killed and two wounded (machine-gun fire) in this brief movement. Some yards off to his right, Taylor has seen Lieutenants Harold Donaldson and Emil Winkler shot dead. But there is no halt for reflection; Taylor leads the section by trail straight up the bluff and into Vierville, where his luck continues. In a two-hour fight he whips a German platoon without losing a man.
The village is quiet when Pearce joins him. Pearce says: "Williams is shot up back there and can't move."
Says Taylor: "I guess that makes me company commander."
Answers Pearce: "This is probably all of Baker Company." Pearce takes a head count; they number twenty-eight, including Taylor.
Says Taylor: "That ought to be enough. Follow me!"
Inland from Vierville about five hundred yards lies the Château de Vaumicel, imposing in its rock-walled massiveness, its hedgerow-bordered fields all entrenched and interconnected with artilleryproof tunnels. To every man but Taylor the target looks prohibitive. Still, they follow him. Fire stops them one hundred yards short of the château. The Germans are behind a hedgerow at mid-distance. Still feeling their way, Taylor's men flatten, open fire with rifles, and toss a few grenades, though the distance seems too great. By sheer chance, one grenade glances off the helmet of a German squatting in a foxhole. He jumps up, shouting: "Kamerad! Kamerad!" Thereupon twenty-four of the enemy walk from behind the hedgerow with their hands in the air. Taylor pares off one of his riflemen to march the prisoners back to the beach. The brief fight costs him three wounded. Within the château, he takes two more prisoners, a German doctor and his first-aid man. Taylor puts them on a "kind of a parole," leaving his three wounded in their keeping while moving his platoon to the first crossroads beyond the château.
Here he is stopped by the sudden arrival of three truckloads of German infantry, who deploy into the fields on both flanks of his position and start an envelopment. The manpower odds, about three to one against him, are too heavy. In the first trade of fire, lasting not more than two minutes, a rifleman lying beside Taylor is killed, three others are wounded, and the B.A.R. is shot from Pearce's hands. That leaves but twenty men and no automatic weapons.
Taylor yells: "Back to the château!" They go out, crawling as far as the first hedgerow; then they rise and trot along, supporting their wounded. Taylor is the last man out, having stayed behind to cover the withdrawal with his carbine until the hedgerows interdict fire against the others. So far, this small group has had no contact with any other part of the expedition, and for all its members know, the invasion may have failed.
They make it to the château. The enemy comes on and moves in close. The attacking fire builds up. But the stone walls are fire-slotted, and through the midday and early afternoon these ports well serve the American riflemen. The question is whether the ammunition will outlast the Germans. It is answered at sundown, just as the supply runs out, by the arrival of fifteen Rangers who join their fire with Taylor's, and the Germans fade back.
Already Taylor and his force are farther south than any element of the right flank in the Omaha expedition. But Taylor isn't satisfied. The battalion objective, as specified for the close of D Day, is still more than one half mile to the westward. He says to the others: "We've got to make it."
So he leads them forth, once again serving as first scout, eighteen of his own riflemen and fifteen Rangers following in column. One man is killed by a bullet getting away from Vaumicel. Dark closes over them. They prepare to bivouac. Having got almost to the village of Louvieres, they are by this time almost one half mile in front of anything else in the United States Army. There a runner reaches them with the message that the remnants of the battalion are assembling seven hundred yards closer to the sea; Taylor and party are directed to fall back on them. It is done.
Later, still under the spell, Price paid the perfect tribute to Taylor. He said: "We saw no sign of fear in him. Watching him made men of us. Marching or fighting, he was leading. We followed him because there was nothing else to do."
Thousands of Americans were spilled onto Omaha Beach. The high ground was won by a handful of men like Taylor who on that day burned with a flame bright beyond common understanding.
|Omaha Beach. © Robert Capa/Magnum Photos.|